The Ottawa Senators’ blue line is playing much better lately, but that doesn’t mean the team’s general manager (GM) Pierre Dorion shouldn’t try to acquire a true top-four defenseman leading up to the trade deadline on Mar. 21. Heading into next season, only three players should be considered locks for a spot on the top two defense pairings. A quality veteran is still needed to complete them. If he had one, Dorion could then throw open the third pairing to competition among his remaining roster players and promising prospects with the Senators’ farm team in Belleville.
The Locks on the Senators’ Blue Line – Chabot, Zub and Sanderson
Under contract until the end of the 2026-27 season and leading all other Senators’ defensemen in almost every statistical category that matters, Thomas Chabot is the cornerstone of the team’s blue line. Case closed.
In his second season with the Senators, Artem Zub has proven himself to be the team’s number two defenseman with a plus/minus of plus-6 and an average ice-time of 21:45 – second only to Chabot. Over 43 games so far this season, he has racked up four goals and eight assists cementing himself as the number-two point-getter among Senators defensemen.
Zub has been a pleasant surprise for the team this year with fans yelling “Zuub” every time he steps on the ice. When they started that tradition he had to be reassured by teammates that he wasn’t being booed (from, “Those aren’t boos, they’re yelling “Zuuub” and defenceman Artem Zub loves it”, Ottawa Sun, 23/10/2021).
Some will question how a prospect like Jake Sanderson, who has never played an NHL game can be considered a lock for a spot on one of the two top D-pairings. Well, don’t take my word for it – both John Vanbiesbrouck, GM of America’s entry in the 2022 Winter Olympics hockey tournament in Beijing, and Senators’ chief scout Trent Mann have said he is ready to lace up and play in the NHL whenever he decides to quit playing for the University of North Dakota. (from, SNAPSHOTS: D.J. Smith returns from protocol . . . Jake Sanderson is welcome to join Senators, Ottawa Sun, 28/12/2021) As to when he will leave school, Dorion said, “We’ll leave that up to him. He knows he’s got an open invitation to join the Ottawa Senators at any point in time.”
Senators’ Young Blue Liners Need to Compete for Roster Spots
Many pundits blithely assume that Lassi Tomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker will be regulars on the roster next season. It’s one thing for the hockey gurus to believe that, but quite another if these two start taking it to heart.
In the NHL, all but the most elite prospects are “guaranteed” their place in the show and neither Tomson nor Bernard-Docker are in that category. It would be better for their development and the team’s long-term strength on the blue line if they had to fight for a spot on the roster and out compete a regular roster player for a home in Ottawa.
I’m not saying that the two won’t someday earn a spot on the roster as regulars, but their time may not be next year. If the Senators are to transition in 2022-23 to a contender, prospects can’t be called up until they are proven roster players. The NHL is no place for player development.
Tomson has seen action in only 16 NHL games. Sure, he scored five points in those games but there are plenty of questions around his game including a plus/minus of minus-8. Bernard-Docker has played 13 NHL games and notched just one assist.
Questions Remain on Senators’ Depth Defensemen
Nikita Zaitsev can only be described as a disappointment for the Senators. The alternate captain who plays with Chabot on the top pairing managed just one goal and an assist up to mid-December when he was injured and put out of the lineup for weeks. One must wonder how much more potent Chabot could be with a bonafide top-four NHL defenceman at his side.
Zaitsev is under contract until the end of the 2023-24 season and his cap hit is $4.5 million in average annual value (AAV). Given his dismal performance this year it may be tough to move him in a trade and Dorion may have to retain some of his salary.
Even so, if he’s not a part of the blue line for the long-term then he needs to be moved. If he is, some room would open for one of the young guns to play their way onto the roster in training camp next September.
Despite the high hopes for Erik Brannstrom when he was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights three years ago as part of a trade package that sent Mark Stone to Sin City, it’s clear he is unlikely to be more than a third-pairing defenceman at best. In 78 NHL games he has notched just two goals and 19 points. This year he comes to the end of his Entry Level Contract (ELC) that pays him $863,000 AAV.
Brannstrom’s play in the last half of the season will determine whether he stays or goes. There are signs he has emerged as a regular roster player. Lately he is playing with confidence, jumping up in the rush and not second-guessing himself. His average-time-on-the-ice (ATOI) is up to 19:22. Only Nick Holden, Chabot and Zub have played more.
Still, at 5-foot-10 and 180-pounds he’s small for an NHL defenseman and Ottawa just can’t afford to have too many small blue liners. His performance in the remaining 39 games will determine whether he’s heading out of Bytown to parts unknown.
It’s hard to see Brannstrom’s partner, Josh Brown coming back next season. His $1.2 million contract comes to an end this spring and it would be hard to justify an extension given his play this year. It’s why his average-time-on-the-ice (ATOI) is the lowest among regular roster defensemen at just 13:54.
Given his disappointing performance this season, Victor Mete is also probably heading out of town when his $1.2 million contract expires this spring. There was a reason the Montreal Canadiens placed him on waivers last year and unfortunately Ottawa had to find out what that was.
Holden has another year left on his contract and is a solid performer on the Senators’ blue line. Although he doesn’t contribute much offensively, he is an effective shutdown rearguard for the team. At $1.7 million this year and $1.3 million next year, he’s affordable. Even so, they are not wedded to him and under the right circumstances, he could be moved.
Fight for Spot on Third Pairing on Senators’ Blue Line
With Holden, Chabot, Sanderson and Zub likely rearguard locks next year, there is an opportunity to set up some healthy competition for a spot on the third pairing at next year’s training camp – even more so if Dorion could add a quality veteran blueliner to the roster.
With one under contract, one of Bernard-Docker, Brannstrom or Tomson would need to play their way onto the roster. That’s the way roster spots should be in the NHL. No spot is guaranteed in the show, not for veterans and not for prospects, no matter how promising they may be.
Defensemen the Senators Should Consider Acquiring
The Senators are in the enviable position of having almost $54 million in projected trade deadline cap space. Budget isn’t the problem, it’s acquiring the right rearguard.
Who to acquire could be the stuff of endless barstool debates across Ottawa. A host of factors determine trade possibilities, including whether a trade partner is rebuilding or looking for a playoff rental. But here’s a few blueliners that should be on Doiron’s acquisition list.
Jakob Chychrun, Arizona Coyotes
The 23-year old had a breakout year last season racking up 41 points in 56 games. What’s more, he comes at a bargain price of $4.6 million AAV with plenty of term left on his contract.
He’s having a dismal year this season, but that’s what happens when you’re playing for the tire fire that is the Arizona Coyotes right now. As to why the Yotes would want to deal a player as immensely talented as Chychrun, the reason is simple – they are rebuilding and are interested in picks and prospects. With plenty of them, Ottawa is a natural trade partner for Arizona.
John Klingberg, Dallas Stars
John Klingberg has reportedly asked for a trade. He’s in the final year of a seven-year contract that pays him $4.6 million AAV. It’s rumoured that the Stars would want a first-round draft pick, a prospect and possibly an additional pick – all of which the Senators could muster if they wanted. Still, giving up a first-round pick for Klingberg would be risky until the Ottawa brain trust knows their draft position next July.
The other stumbling block is that Klingberg is rumoured to be looking for an eight-year contract totalling $63 million. That price tag is an eye-popper, but so too is the term, given that he’s 29-years old.
Others Who Should Be On Dorion’s Shopping List
- Ben Chiarot, Pending Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA), Montreal Canadiens
- Rasmus Ristolainen, Pending UFA, Philadelphia Flyers
- Nick Leddy, Pending UFA, Detroit Red Wings
- Calvin de Haan, Pending UFA, Chicago Blackhawks
- Colin Miller, Pending UFA, Buffalo Sabres
- Hampus Lindholm, Pending UFA, Anaheim Ducks
- Josh Manson, Pending UFA, Anaheim Ducks
It’s Time to Bolster the Senators’ Defense-Corps
Senators fans should not be fooled by the improved play of the D-Corps since early January. It lacks the depth required to be competitive. Dorion needs to shore it up with a proven top-four defenseman. That’s not only good for his team’s depth but sends the right message to his prospects – making the roster of an NHL team is hard and staying there is even harder.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
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